Don’t hate on Kate: Why Canadians care about the royal wedding

May 2011

Obsession with celebrities is not something we’re unaccustomed to, but when it comes to the “wedding of the century,” it looks as if people have pulled out all the stops. British people and people on this side of the pond seemed to take the event very seriously. It was all over Canadian news, taking precedence over a recent bombing in Marrakesh’s main square, tornadoes in the United States and even the federal election.

Despite the thorough coverage, it seems that reaction among Canadians was mixed, from ambivalence to obsession.

Deirdre Bradd, 21, and a friend prepared for the big day by buying some bubbly and baking a “Congratulations Will and Kate” cake, which they enjoyed while watching the ceremonies (which started at 3:00 a.m. EST). “We wanted to feel we were celebrating with them,” says Bradd. “I think we were both more interested in the love story, rather than the relationship between England and Canada.”

Another Toronto student, Vivian Mak, thinks that relationships between countries are relevant. “Although it doesn’t really relate to Canadians, I think it is still of Canadian inter- est, because our association with England is a huge part of our history,” she says. “We live in a global society now where every country can very easily affect each other. We still remain in good relations with England, so why not be happy for them as well? Happiness doesn’t need a justified reason, and love is a universal component of humans, not just the future King and Queen of England.”

However, with all this emphasis on the people and their romance, we forget that Wills and Kate, as much as people might claim otherwise, are not exactly ‘ordinary people.’ Toronto resident Kayla Guida doesn’t think the Royal Wedding is a real love story. “I don’t believe in the Royal Wedding. It’s not based on true love the way a marriage should be. It’s choreographed based on politics and royal status.”

Someone else told me that the enthusiasm to see the wedding live comes from people just wanting to be a part of history, while others just “wanted to see her dress.”

I wonder: wouldn’t participating in last month’s first-ever SlutWalk (now popping up all over the world), or going out and voting in the federal election that was just days later, be a more relevant way to be a part of history?

“I think with Americans and Canadians, they really like the idea of princes and princesses,” says Stacey Rhodes, born in Australia but living in London. “And living out the fairy- tale wedding and life; they are all just extremely obsessed. It’s intense!”

Jessica Caballero, an employee at Westminster Abbey notes, “[P]eople love fairy-tales; the poor (well, middle-class) girl marries the prince, heir to a kingdom and-a-half.”

Is this keen interest just a projection of a childhood diet of Disney and Barbie? The closest we can get to a real Cinderella story?

But why are the Windsors and their history so captivating for Canadian audiences?

Many other countries have monarchies, many of which are still politically active. But days before our federal election, I flip on the local news channel and all anyone is talking about is the Royal Wedding, the first royal kiss, the royal dress, the earrings and especially the Queen’s outfit, as if they are the only royals, and the only monarchs worth talking about.

“I think Canadians, like many other countries, can trace links back to England,” continues Caballero, “whether it be family ties, or having been part of the empire or Commonwealth.”

Serena Hemraj, a high-school student living in Alberta, points out that “the British monarchy’s influence stretches around the world. Prince William’s grandmother is head of state of 16 Commonwealth countries.” Has Great Britain’s colonial legacy earned them the attention of the eyes around the globe? Or maybe the fact that so many other countries are interested in the affairs of their royal family is just evidence of the extent of the monarchy’s history of colonization.

I’m wondering: if we’re concerned with the ways the histories of our two countries are entwined, how can we not consider that the relationship is one tainted with bloodshed and genocide? Do those memories have a time limit?

Speaking of history, another popular opinion is that the Royal Family brings to mind another story, that of the British monarchy’s history of imperialism and colonization.

Mera Sivanesan, UK-born but raised in Toronto says, “speaking as a Sri Lankan Tamil woman who is part of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora…the main reason why the bulk of that specific Diaspora was created was the war in Sri Lanka which, in turn, happened because of the legacy of British colonialism…why would I celebrate anything to do with the institution that caused this and so many other stories of dispossession, separation, exploitation and theft?

“We can’t take that wedding out of context, it’s not just a happy union between two people in love, its steeped in history… so I don’t buy the argument that people are watching it to just see that, it’s not true… We may be watching it for all the pomp and pageantry and glitz, but all of that stuff is predicated on the methods used to acquire such obscene amounts of wealth.”

Speaking of wealth, many people I talked to argued that the wedding was a welcome distraction during distressing economic times, but it was a distraction that cost millions. How can we not consider the irony in that?

I wish I could partake and enjoy the festivities, and be pleased for the happy couple, but with every glance at a newspaper that shows me the Royal Wedding instead of real world events, I think about the state of the world and Arundhati Roy’s words echo in my head: “Imperial Britain’s festering blood-drenched gifts to the modern world…”

Can’t get enough of the Royal Wedding? Check it outline:

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, May 2011

The thing about museums: How English museums illustrate the problem with the contemporary historical exhibit

July 2010

Throughout recent history, England has probably extended its reach to more countries than any other colonizing nation. In fact, at the height of its imperial regime, England controlled a quarter of the world’s population. Under the guise of science, anthropology, religious missions and military exploration, the English crown changed the history of hundreds of nations and millions of people.

Today, evidence of that history is unabashedly displayed in English museums.

Brighton’s Pavilion Museum is housed next to George IVs former seaside palace, which was built in the Indo-Saracenic style, a mix of Victorian gothic and indigenous design. This approach was a favourite of British officials living in colonial India, a way to mask orientalist exoticism with feigned respect and appreciation for local art, basically the equivalent of architectural imperialism.

The museum itself is small by comparison but efficiently packs art, tools, clothing and other tokens from indigenous peoples the world over.

Descriptions of these objects glorify ‘armchair anthropology’; a detached and ineffective ethnographic technique critiqued by contemporary academics for its racist essential- ism. The information provided romanticizes the colonial process, using gentle euphemisms when explaining the adventurous ‘collection process’ of what should be declared stolen goods.

The infamous British Museum of London, England’s also glosses over the processes by which artifacts were ‘collected,’ but small and large plaques thanking benefactors for their ‘donations’ are everywhere.

Many of these are personal contributions, which made me question where someone like Major R.G. Gayer- Anderson, who donated the Ancient Egyptian cat statuette, dubbed the ‘Gayer-Anderson Cat’, would have obtained his treasury of historic art. (The Victoria and Albert Museum, also in London, is another of many museums to house Gayer- Anderson’s and his younger brother, T. G. Gayer-Anderson’s, donations).

Despite the fact that a map of Britain’s contemporary and historical political ties could be drawn out based on contributions to the British Museum, it is clear that there is an attempt to depoliticize its collection.

A Tennyson quote on the floor of the Great Court (as you enter the museum), reads: “And let thy feet/millenniums hence/be set in midst of knowledge.” A quote that I believe illustrates the way history and art are romanticized. A self- confessed history-geek myself, I still believe it is important to contextualize historical artifacts to truly understand them.

Political context often goes unmentioned when display- ing said artifacts, in an attempt to maintain what I can only describe as the ‘purity’ of academia, encouraging museum- goers to try and embrace and appreciate the wonders of world history and science without sullying it with implica- tions of cultural theft and global politics.

If one considers the manner in which the museum ob- tained so many of its artifacts, disregarding historical and po- litical context is to disregard a vital part the object’s history. In so doing, we are disregarding the people and the culture it represents. This strikes me as both discourteous and ineffec- tive for an establishment of universal scholarship.

Another important point is that the value of certain his- tories, certain peoples and certain eras visibly changes as one navigates somewhere like the British Museum. Something as basic as the layout of exhibits, I think, illustrates what the institution deems more interesting or important for visitors.

While on the one hand much of the museum’s collection from what we call today’s ‘Global South,’ are stolen pieces of history, it is interesting to note that European territories are still given large wings and sections for multiple time periods while other parts of the world are given smaller and simpler bearings. Despite the British colonial legacy of baseless theft and genocide, the history of the colonized remains less impressive, or less important. 500 years later, Africa is still in the basement.

Tennyson’s quote is an obvious tenet of what the British Museum, and many other museums stand for: knowledge and learning about our past. All I can conclude based on visiting all of these institutions is that we will be in no capacity able to learn from the mistakes of our past if future genera- tions are not taught about them.

And I know I am not the first to say “He who wins the war writes the history books,” so I wonder why it is that centuries of colonial oppression and all its ramifications are not only glorified and venerated by internationally renowned institutions but that their gross misrepresentation goes un- questioned and unchallenged.

It appears that the institution of the metropolitan museum has become another facet of the neo-colonial machine and that education is one more battle to fight in the war for freedom and equality.

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, July 2010